Cover Story: Big Bark, Bigger Bite1 Mar, 2017 By: Thomas Haire Response
As Top Dog Direct continues to transition with the increasingly digital times, Bill McAlister says its continued standing as an As Seen On TV leader owes much to its flexibility, its inventors, and its vendors.
“We only look for products we think we can brand,” says Bill McAlister, president and CEO of Top Dog Direct, one of the leading As Seen On TV marketers in the world, based in Trevose, Pa. “We aren’t looking for a bunch of products to just throw up against the wall — we bring one product to market every two-to-three months with the idea of creating an immediate success, as well as a lasting brand.”
McAlister — who got his start in the direct response world more than 30 years ago at QVC — started the company now known as Top Dog Direct as Media Enterprises in 1993. Today, with long-time partner Steve Silbiger as chief marketing officer and Jacklyn Bloemker as director of marketing, the company boasts historic DRTV hits like Urine Gone, Mighty Putty, Tag Away, and the Sobakawa pillow among its successes — as well as more recent winners BeActive brace and Futzuki.
All the while, Top Dog Direct kept pace with the changes driving the As Seen On TV corner of the performance-based marketing business — first riding the success of the DR-to-retail wave that rolled through the business in the past decade, and now leading the way in online innovation. Its newest initiative — As Seen on the Internet — launches in June and promises to bring the hottest products being marketed and sold solely online to retail stores around the country.
McAlister says the idea behind this new facet of Top Dog’s work is in line with what’s brought the company success in the past.
“We spend our time doing nothing but perusing the internet and meeting with inventor groups to find the next big thing,” he says. “The product is king — it’s all we care about. Our goal is to make a profit every single month, and for 30 years, we’ve been able to do that.”
Lucky, Good … or Both?
When asked to reach back to the beginning of his career, McAlister laughs and says, “My dad always said to me, ‘It’s better to be lucky than good.’ In the early 1980s, I owned an importing business in Boston. We were importing for retailers like CVS and Ames. One of my contacts at CVS left for a new company in West Chester, Pa., and a few months later I got a call from that company.”
The company was a then-little-known startup called QVC. “My old CVS contact was one of the first three employees there and recommended me to the owner. I became the exclusive importer for all non-jewelry and non-clothing product lines,” McAlister says. “In the beginning, it was so small — it was only on the air for three hours at a time, and they’d buy 10 pieces of this product or that product.”
During his five years with QVC, McAlister’s role expanded. He became the first-ever on-air guest on the network. It did not go smoothly.
“My first time on air, I was displaying a sponge that would suck up 30 times its weight in liquid,” he recalls. “Well, somehow I spilled a bunch of liquid, and it went all over this crisp white dress shirt. The cameramen were laughing so hard they just stayed on the shot. So then I started laughing, the show host started laughing, everyone on set started laughing. The good news was that there were probably about three people watching.”
But, as McAlister says, “the more you do something, the better you get.” So not only did he improve on the air, he also became a master at bringing successful products to the network. “Within two years, my orders went from 10 pieces of a product to 20,000,” he contends. “My business got so big that, after five years together, they bought me out.”
What he learned during the process was invaluable — not just from successes. “I learned what worked by learning what didn’t sell — and so did the network,” McAlister says. “I learned how to write scripts, how to present, really how to do it all.”
With QVC buying him out, McAlister co-founded Media Enterprises — the precursor to Top Dog Direct — in 1993 with fellow QVC expatriate Brad Specter. Their first hit? “We did the Smart Mop in conjunction with Jon Nokes,” McAlister says. “Brad and I were walking the Housewares show in Chicago when we came across it, and we did a deal to put it on Home Shopping Network (HSN). It was also the first time I worked with Anthony Sullivan.”
The Smart Mop blew away projections in its HSN debut — “Sully sold 5,000 units in three minutes,” McAlister recalls — leading to an eventual long-form DRTV show that ended with more than 14 million units sold. It was the first of many hits that McAlister and his team had a hand in.
As Media Enterprises grew — eventually expanding to a half-dozen separate companies — major hits like Urine Gone (a pet odor and stain eliminator), Mighty Putty, the Sobakawa Cloud Pillow, and Tag Away (a treatment for skin tags) helped McAlister and team become one of the leading As Seen On TV marketers and experts in taking products from DRTV success to retail shelves.
“Urine Gone is still the No. 1 pet cleaner in Walmart, Target, and CVS,” McAlister says of the product-turned-brand. “And Sobakawa: we’re still selling 15,000 pillows per month, more than two decades later.”
“But a problem we were facing when people came in to our offices — especially inventors — was explaining all of the facets of these six companies,” McAlister says. “So, two years ago, we decided to bring them all under a new brand: Top Dog Direct.”
Today, Top Dog has a tight-knit staff of eight people who handle sourcing and buying for the company’s line of products. “Beyond that, we outsource everything,” McAlister says. “We have no warehouses, no studios. We tightened everything up to me, Steve, Jackie, and our team who works with our partners. Our goal every day: find the next big product.”
Meeting Growing Expectations
Not just the next big product, though, as McAlister noted in the opening paragraph — the next big brand.
“For instance, we’ve built a line out of BeActive — the initial brace product is up to 6 million sold, but we’re now working on a full line,” he says.
McAlister believes a key facet to building brands and reaching consumers’ continually growing expectations of product quality, customer service, and powerful value has been exposed by the success of Amazon as a retailer. And Amazon’s work has absolutely changed the business for marketers of every stripe — particularly those in the As Seen On TV business.
“When you get our product delivered to your home, you have expectations,” McAlister says. “It harkens back to the initials of QVC: quality, value, convenience. But Amazon has deepened those expectations. The entire experience of ordering from them — I order something on Amazon almost every day — through to the delivery is seamless and powerful. So, for us, we believe that when you open our box, we want you to feel like what’s inside is worth 10 times more than you paid, thanks first to the experience and then to the packaging.”
He points to recent industry surveys that show as many as half of consumers go directly to Amazon after seeing a product advertised on television (rather than the product’s own site). “They trust Amazon,” McAlister says. “And they have to trust what you are offering. It’s something everyone in this business has to do better, and we’re working hard at it. If you want to stick around in this business, you have to start thinking more like Amazon.”
Still, the process in any current-day performance-based TV campaign begins with the relationship with the product’s creator. “We want the inventors we work with to love the process, to be a major part of the process,” McAlister says. “For instance, with BeActive, the inventor had patented the product and even came up with the name. It’s his baby. And today, he’s still involved with the process: from packaging to scripting to the shoot and to the final edit. He’s there from start to finish. Much like with the consumer, we want the inventor to have the best experience with us.”
McAlister says the company’s most recent success is Futzuki, a mat designed to ease foot-pain using reflexology, a method of using pressure points on the bottom of the foot to help circulation and reduce pain. The product’s success is a surprise to McAlister, who says he wouldn’t have pegged it as the leader among the 10 or so products he tested in 2016. “It goes to show, when it comes to direct response TV, the market is older and looking for solutions like this. It fits the model,” he adds.
And a recent change to the campaign’s creative — utilizing animation — helped Futzuki get key placement on Fox News, which has been averse to running foot products in the past. With the target market for Futzuki overlapping heavily with Fox News’ demographics, McAlister is excited for its prospects.
He also points to the continuing success on retail shelves of both BeActive and Tag Away. “Both have transitioned from the As Seen On TV shelf to regular over-the-counter placement, something that remains rare with most products in our space,” McAlister says.
As Seen on the Internet? Why Not?
As the industry continues to evolve, and digital marketing becomes more crucial, the Top Dog team has continued to evolve its business. However, it’s planning a major new step for June: the launch of its As Seen on the Internet business unit.
With direct response hosts like Taylor Baldwin and Marc Gill planned as presenters of pre-existing internet products and long-time Top Dog partner Digital Target Marketing helping power the business, McAlister says hopes are high for a business designed to bring successful internet products and new products marketed only online to retailers across the country.
“Taylor is a major key in this push,” McAlister says of Baldwin. “Not only is she talking possible partners through the pitch of this business online, she’s also going to serve as our health-and-beauty product expert. She’s a great person, is good at what she does, and consumers love her. Similarly, on the product end, Marc Gill will be involved with housewares products and gadgets.”
McAlister says retailers are excited to test the concept — which will include exclusive “As Seen on the Internet” sections in stores. “We’re going to find the internet’s hottest products — whether from products already available or via startups like Kickstarter — and we’re going to sell them on our new site, on the product’s active site, and at retail.”
McAlister points to online influencers who can improve a product’s sales simply using iPhone video and a great testimonial as a marker for what Top Dog hopes to accomplish. “It’s going to be real video, real content, designed to go viral, we hope, with online viewers and drive traffic to our sites and retail partners.”
Speaking of partners, McAlister is not shy about crediting Top Dog’s key vendors for their roles in the company’s success. For instance, he says, “We use John Miller and Hutton-Miller as our production team for a reason. We could take his commercial from 12 years ago for Urine Gone and put it on the air today. It would look current and sell. Yes, there are a lot of great producers in our business, and we’ve worked with some of them. But we love the way John handles things, that he’s always ready with something new, and always on the edge.”
The aforementioned Digital Target Marketing also receives McAlister’s kudos. “Not just for how effective their sites are for us, but also for how active they are,” he says. “Together, we watch every review online — and we listen to all of our calls, too, in case of any problems or complaints — and we respond to all of those within 24 hours latest. Digital Target Marketing responds in real time, quite often. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
McAlister says PR and social media agency Marketing Maven has been crucial, as well. “Marketing Maven understands our goals, and it has become an extension of our team by supporting us with out-of-the-box strategies and helping to navigate the changing online media landscape of bloggers, influencers, social media, and other technologies,” he says.
Agencies Diray Media and Lockard & Wechsler Direct gain McAlister’s notice for their help navigating the changing media buying universe. And consultant FDAImports.com helps the Top Dog team best position products that might seem naturals for scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
As he speaks about all of Top Dog’s vendors, McAlister constantly returns to what they’ve helped the company learn. It’s no surprise, then, that McAlister carries around a number of experiences that helped him understand how to better run his business. One in particular stands out.
“I was working with Sully (Anthony Sullivan) on a product called Scrub Balls,” he says. “We thought we had a huge winner on our hands. Most of the time, I’m right. More often, Sully’s right.”
The product — sold as a dozen balls per box — was designed to minimize the use of detergent in a load of laundry by including the balls in the washing machine. “Instead of using a cup of Tide, you use a teaspoon, and these 12 Scrub Balls to agitate and clean clothes without damaging colors. It was a great demo,” McAlister says. “We convinced HSN to buy a lot — I mean a lot — of Scrub Balls.”
He says that HSN even bought a full-page ad in USA Today promoting the appearance and that they teamed with Maytag to build two clear washing machines to show the Scrub Balls at work. “It was just beautiful. The balls were all primary colors — red, yellow, blue — and we were sure it was going to kill.”
The day the product hit the air, however, things didn’t go as planned. “I’m sitting in the studio, watching the clock and the units-sold counter,” McAlister says. “Six minutes, seven, eight — 12 minutes in, and we’ve sold 18 pieces. I’m thinking there’s something wrong with the computer. Sully’s pitching like crazy, and the president of the network is standing next to me befuddled. We wound up selling 36 pieces.”
McAlister laughs, calling it “the worst bomb I’ve ever had.” He adds, “We didn’t even test the DRTV commercial, just dumped the inventory to odd lots retailers and got out.”
The lesson? “Don’t ever fall in love with your own product,” McAlister says. “Hundreds of people were involved in that project, and they were all sold on it. It’s something inventors need to hear because they fall in love with their products, understandably. But it’s also something even the most successful marketer always needs to remember.” ■